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Airpower Over Vietnam?

[ 18 ] September 15, 2014 |

For the National Interest this week, a brief reappraisal of the promise and failure of airpower in Vietnam:

Effectively, the Obama administration has decided to rely on airpower in its efforts to limit the catastrophic, ongoing chaos caused by the Iraq War. Thinking about the operation against ISIS in these terms almost inevitably evokes similar thoughts about previous catastrophic wars. For example, could airpower have won the Vietnam War, or at least limited the extent of our defeat?

Certainly, lots of people believed so at the time. While the United States Air Force may have viewed the Rolling Thunder campaign as sub-optimal, given its desire to attack a much wider range of targets, the commanders at the time viewed it as an opportunity to show that the service could win a war on its own. Taking a look at the strategic, tactical, and joint aspects of the use of airpower in Vietnam, we can get to an answer of “Maybe, but…” with an emphasis on the “but.” The United States could have used airpower more effectively in Vietnam than it did, but even the most efficient plans likely could not have saved the Saigon regime.

Space: The Final Frontier of Inter-Service Conflict?

[ 20 ] September 12, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat thinks through some of the implications of autonomy for potential “space forces:”

On an international scale, how responsibility for space falls out in terms of military organizations has potentially large implications for the development of norms of appropriate behavior in space. Different services have different visions of the commons, and have powerful platforms for advocacy on what the “rules of the road” should look like. Services can also have strong attitudes about arms control. A service that owes its existence to a particular vision of freedom-of-action in space can provide powerful opposition to arms control agreements it finds threatening.

And so the configuration of services can have effects beyond the organization of military affairs in a particular country. But how does this configuration change, and how might a change in China affect how other countries design their defense bureaucracies? What we do know is that services and branches do not follow one single logic; the institutional framework of military organization depends on national interest, national resources, and the particular configuration of domestic politics existing at the point of decision.

Togo in Retrospect

[ 66 ] September 12, 2014 |

I have a piece up on the National Interest on the legacies of the Russo-Japanese War:

The Russo-Japanese War commenced 110 years ago this February, lasting eighteen months before a US-brokered truce mercifully put it to rest. The war killed upwards of 125,000 people, and sharply limited Russian influence in Northeast Asia. Japan gained control of Korea, and gained a long-term foothold for influencing events in Manchuria and China.

Writers have ascribed many legacies to the conflict, some of which we can set aside. Victory against Japan probably would not have prevented the collapse of Imperial Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union; the Revolution happened for other reasons. Moreover, the conflict did not give the Central Powers a “window of opportunity” for defeating Russia in Europe; we now know that Vienna and Berlin over-estimated, rather than under-estimated, Russian power in 1914. Defeat might conceivably have broken Japanese militarism for a time, but the weakness of China and of the European colonial empires would likely have proven too tempting for Tokyo in any case.

High Strung

[ 42 ] September 11, 2014 |

This is helpful.

And the tweet of the day…

Ugh Double Ugh

[ 203 ] September 11, 2014 |

Well, this just looks like a clusterfuck.

In Iraq, dissolved elements of the army will have to regroup and fight with conviction. Political leaders will have to reach compromises on the allocation of power and money in ways that have eluded them for years. Disenfranchised Sunni tribesmen will have to muster the will to join the government’s battle. European and Arab allies will have to hang together, Washington will have to tolerate the resurgence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias it once fought, and U.S. commanders will have to orchestrate an air war without ground-level guidance from American combat forces…

But defeating the group in neighboring Syria will be even more difficult, according to U.S. military and diplomatic officials. The strategy imagines weakening the Islamic State without indirectly strengthening the ruthless government led by Bashar al-Assad or a rival network of al-Qaeda affiliated rebels — while simultaneously trying to build up a moderate Syrian opposition.

The Syria side of the campaign remains a work in progress at the Pentagon, CIA and White House. The development of an operational plan is further complicated by a lack of intelligence — U.S. drones have not been flying over Islamic State-controlled parts of the country for long — and the absence of allied local forces that can leverage U.S. airstrikes into territorial gains.

And then we have this helpful group of assholes:

Progress has been encouraging. Arab states have scrambled to set aside differences to rally against the threat posed by the extremists, whose rampage through Iraq and Syria has unnerved rulers across the region.

On Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was to attend a meeting in Saudi Arabia with all of the major players in the Middle East, including the host country, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, to discuss ways to address the crisis.

Many of these countries are at odds over a range of issues and might not have been willing to send representatives to meet in the same room were it not for their urgent recognition of the new menace in their midst.

In common with their fear of the Islamic State, however, the region’s leaders also share a deep mistrust of the Obama administration, rooted in the past three years of increasing disengagement from the Middle East as the United States has sought to distance itself from the turmoil engendered by the Arab Spring revolts.

So, a group of countries that can’t agree on what should be done with Syria are deeply irritated that the United States has not sorted through what is to be done with Syria. Meanwhile, money pours out of the pockets of the Gulf states into the coffers of ISIS, which leaves everyone in the Gulf states deeply concerned that the US isn’t doing enough about Iran.

Japanese Flying Fortresses

[ 19 ] September 10, 2014 |

This is a fascinating picture:

Some more information here.

The first B-17 to come under Japanese control was an B-17D which was pieced together from the remnants of other destroyed B-17Ds on Clark Field in the Philippines. The same thing was done to to two B-17Es on Bandung Field on Java. At the time, this was the newest model of the B-17 available. The Japanese were impressed with the simplicity of the cockpit for such a large aircraft. One of the B-17Es was used for a test bed for a captured Norden bombsight, coupled to the Sperry automatic flight control system. Also of great interest was the B-17′s gunnery equipment, especially the Sperry automatic computing gunsight. The May 1943 issue of Koku-Asahi was devoted almost completely to the captured B-17s. Nearly every major component was shown in photos and drawings. Since the Japanese also had instruction manuals for the aircraft, no detail was overlooked.

Falklands to a Fault

[ 88 ] September 8, 2014 |

My latest at the National Interest takes a look at the legacy of the Falklands War:

The Falklands War ended with a decisive British victory over thirty years ago.  Nevertheless, the war remains alive in the imagination of analysts and historians. Although the conflict happened outside of the normal “zones of crisis,” it has long held the attention of students of warfare.  The war, which involved a conflict over territory between two established nation-states with large, capital intensive military establishments, seems almost quaint today.  However, the issues that brought about the war, the manner in which the war was fought, and the situation the war left behind continue to hold important lessons for practitioners of foreign policy today.

Foreign Entanglements: The Triad

[ 7 ] September 6, 2014 |

On this episode of Foreign Entanglements, I talk with Al Mauroni about the future of the nuclear triad:

Demographics and Vodka

[ 33 ] September 6, 2014 |

This is a comforting thought:

The most obvious explanation for Russia’s high mortality—drinking—is also the most puzzling on closer examination. Russians drink heavily, but not as heavily as Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians—all countries that have seen an appreciable improvement in life expectancy since breaking off from the Soviet Bloc. Yes, vodka and its relatives make an appreciable contribution to the high rates of cardiovascular, violent, and accidental deaths—but not nearly enough to explain the demographic catastrophe. There are even studies that appear to show that Russian drinkers live longer than Russian non-drinkers. Parsons discusses these studies in some detail, and with good reason: it begins to suggest the true culprit. She theorizes that drinking is, for what its worth, an instrument of adapting to the harsh reality and sense of worthlessness that would otherwise make one want to curl up and die.

… for a critical look on the actual demographic claims made in the linked article, see Mark Adomanis (h/t).

Clausewitz and Airpower

[ 2 ] September 5, 2014 |

Can the contributions of a general who died seventy years before the first powered flight lend us some tools for thinking about airpower? Apropos of another recent LGM conversation, it may be that time has passed the old soldier by, and that Carl von Clausewitz no longer represents an important touchstone for discussions of military strategy and history.  But if this is the case, then Bill Sweetman should inform the United States Air Force. Arguing that zombie Clausewitz was re-animated in the wake of the Vietnam War by “boot-centric warfare zealots,” Sweetman contends that the Napoleonic era theorist has little place in modern strategic theory. By contrast, let me suggest airpower theorist have long been engaged in a conversation with Clausewitz.

Identifying a central theorist of airpower, or group of theorists, invariably generates controversy.  Most agree that the Italian general Giulio Douhet was important, but few grant that he lends much direct insight into modern warfare.  William “Billy” Mitchell is a critical figure in the institutional history of the USAF, but his influence of airpower thought was much less important.  Trenchard and Arnold were more organizational pioneers than airpower theorists.

That said, almost everyone who’s studied post-war American airpower agrees that John Boyd and John Warden were important influences, even if they disagree as to whether than influence was good or bad.  Although both Boyd and Warden struggled at times with Air Force bureaucracy, they both reached the rank of colonel before retirement.  Warden served as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College.

And both Warden and Boyd engaged deeply with Clausewitz. A conversation with Clausewitz animates Warden’s entire approach to the influence of airpower on war. Warden uses the term “center of gravity” thirty-three times in his seminal work “Air Campaign,” directly citing Clausewitz on nine separate occasions.  To be sure, Warden uses Clausewitz as a jumping off point to make his own argument about the relationship of force to political outcomes, but he nevertheless saw value in engaging with the old Prussian.

Similarly, Clausewitz deeply influenced John Boyd.  The center of gravity, friction, and fog of war concepts all contributed to Boyd’s understanding of how organizations function, and of how airmen could use military force to prevent them from properly functioning.  Again, Boyd hardly agreed with everything in On War, and didn’t believe that the CvC could (or should) be imported directly into modern warfare, but he still understood and appreciated the contribution Clausewitz had made.

It’s fair enough to say that Warden and Boyd do not constitute the entirety of Air Force thought, but it would be absurd to suggest that they aren’t important, influential figures in the history of American airpower thought. Indeed, Warden famously argued that airpower alone, with only a residual ground presence, could quickly defeat Saddam Hussein and overturn the Baathist regime in 1990. In case you’re wondering, 1990 is 24 years ago, not 90 years ago.

But if you’re not convinced, a quick search of Air and Space Power Journal, the Air Force’s peer-reviewed scholarly journal, turned up eighty-two articles referencing Clausewitz since 1966.  With (about) 250 issues of the journal, this means that roughly one out of every three issues includes an article referencing Clausewitz. By comparison, Alfred Thayer Mahan was referenced twenty-five times, Giulio Douhet thirty-nine, Antoine-Henri Jomini twelve, and Billy Mitchell about sixty.

In short, I use Clausewitz to engage with the Air Force because the Air Force has seen fit to engage with Clausewitz.  I suspect that airmen have found value in Clausewitz for the same reasons that every other warfighter finds value in the Prussian. As Sweetman has helpfully shown, it is easy to disastrously misread Clausewitz, but productive readings of Clausewitz can apparently generate insights even for people who aren’t “Boot-centric warfare zealots.”

This is because Clausewitz provides a useful vocabulary for describing many of the most complex problems in military strategy, including the relationship between politics and force, the meaning of victory, and the power of uncertainty.  This, rather than his helpful tips for Napoleonic logistics, is why people still read Clausewitz today.  Clausewitz isn’t the end of strategic theory, but for a great many people he’s an excellent beginning.

The easiest critique of Grounded might be that none of the connections between Clausewitz and the history and practice of airpower are particularly novel.  Many analysts have criticized the Air Force for a desire to bypass the gritty work of destroying fielded enemy military forces, for a fetishism that puts technology ahead of politics, and for a failure to appreciate the critical role of friction in military affairs.  The (modest) contribution of Grounded is to bring these three critiques together, identify the institutional sources of the problems, and propose a bureaucratic solution.

And so while Bill may stress about the specter of “Boot-centric warfare zealots,” clutching copies of On War while villainously slipping 1763 F-35s into the pocket of an unsuspecting Air Force, I would advise him to relax. A working knowledge of Clausewitz doesn’t spell doom for the Air Force, even if it should generate some difficult questions about what we want for our military forces, and how we want to organize them in order to further our ends.

Friday Dinosaur Blogging: Dreadnoughtus

[ 63 ] September 5, 2014 |

Well, this brings together a couple of LGM obsessions:

Scientists have discovered the fossilized remains of a new long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur that has taken the crown for largest terrestrial animal with a body mass that can be accurately determined.

Measurements of bones from its hind leg and foreleg revealed that the animal was 65 tons, and still growing when it died in the Patagonian hills of Argentina about 77 million years ago.

“To put this in perspective, an African elephant is about five tons, T. rex is eight tons, Diplodocus is 18 tons, and a Boeing 737 is around 50 tons,” said study author and paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara at Drexel University. “And then you have Dreadnoughtus at 65 tons.”

Dreadnoughtus, meaning “fears nothing,” is named after the impervious early 20th century battleships. Although it was a plant-eater, a healthy Dreadnoughtus likely had no real issues with predators due to its intimidating size and muscular, weaponized tail.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a Dreadnoughtus unless it carries at least 8 12″ guns. Maybe if bspencer could get to work on that…


[ 2 ] September 4, 2014 |

Last week I did an interview on airpower and stuff with the Buter. Check it out.

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